The Board of Trustees of a high school in New Zealand has issued a new mandate banning the educational facility from allowing students to present or listen to speeches on any topic while on school grounds, unless it is one of the approved topics set by the board and has been presented to them in a private meeting in its entirety beforehand.

The shock decision by the board, which came about after a unanimous vote, follows the fallout another school faced when they banned a student from speaking about mental health at an arts festival.

The chair of the board, who would speak only upon assurance of anonymity and who threatened to sue us if we revealed any identifying details about any board members or the school in question, justified their decision when I spoke to him late yesterday.

“We discussed this issue at length” the chair said, “and came to the conclusion that free speech when it comes to speeches is simply too risky.”

“If you have no restrictions on content and are faced with a topic that may not be appropriate, you’re then forced to prevent the speech from going ahead and consequently get made out to be the bad person. You get threats, you get calls for resignations and having teaching registrations revoked. Everyone tells you to get stuffed without even considering the rationale behind the decision.”

“And then, if you disallow one topic but then allow another, similarly controversial topic which is nevertheless more appropriate, you get accused of discrimination or bigotry or sexism or ableism or god knows what else – you cop it just as bad.”

“There’s no such thing as free speech these days and the students need to get used to this now.”

I asked the chair if they could not just give the students very basic guidelines about etiquette and being considerate regarding controversial or sensitive topics, rather than restricting them completely.

He responded that such a move was “too hard” as it would then be necessary to draft the guidelines and attempt to enforce them, and to have a plan in place for if those guidelines were not met.

When pressed further to expand on this he said, “Everything has to go back to somebody these days. We don’t have the time to go back and forth for weeks or even months amending and re-wording guidelines and processes until everyone agrees.”

I then asked the chair to go into more detail about the approved topics. He told me that currently, there are five such options:

  • Our Sporting Greats
  • Landmark Events in New Zealand History
  • The Silver Fern, The Kiwi and Other Great Symbols of New Zealand
  • What I Like About Our Education System
  • The Ways In Which New Zealand Is Better Than Australia

Will there be room for further topics to be added to the list? I asked.

“We will consider applications submitted in writing in the form of a thousand-word essay explaining why the proposed topic should be considered for inclusion. Then we will make a vote on the submission at the following board meeting. The submission will need unanimous support from all members in order to be added to the approved list.”

When asked how the principal and faculty of the school felt about the decision, the chair admitted that there was opposition to the move.

“The principal threatened to start a petition to have us all removed from the board, so we had to get rid of him.” He said.

“We have removed him from his position under a vote of no confidence and have already found his replacement, who supports our decision unequivocally.”

The students have not been permitted to comment, as responding with their thoughts on a board decision is not on the list of approved topics.

Should free speech get stuffed? Or should the board?
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